Old Mr. Letterblair, the accredited legal adviser ofthree generations of New York gentility, throned behindhis mahogany desk in evident perplexity. As hestroked his closeclipped white whiskers and ran hishand through the rumpled grey locks above his juttingbrows, his disrespectful junior partner thought howmuch he looked like the Family Physician annoyedwith a patient whose symptoms refuse to be classified.
"My dear sir--" he always addressed Archer as"sir"--"I have sent for you to go into a little matter; amatter which, for the moment, I prefer not to mentioneither to Mr. Skipworth or Mr. Redwood." The gentlemenhe spoke of were the other senior partners of thefirm; for, as was always the case with legal associationsof old standing in New York, all the partners namedon the office letter-head were long since dead; and Mr.Letterblair, for example, was, professionally speaking,his own grandson.
He leaned back in his chair with a furrowed brow."For family reasons--" he continued.
Archer looked up.
"The Mingott family," said Mr. Letterblair with anexplanatory smile and bow. "Mrs. Manson Mingottsent for me yesterday. Her grand-daughter the CountessOlenska wishes to sue her husband for divorce.Certain papers have been placed in my hands." Hepaused and drummed on his desk. "In view of yourprospective alliance with the family I should like toconsult you--to consider the case with you--beforetaking any farther steps."
Archer felt the blood in his temples. He had seen theCountess Olenska only once since his visit to her, andthen at the Opera, in the Mingott box. During thisinterval she had become a less vivid and importunateimage, receding from his foreground as May Wellandresumed her rightful place in it. He had not heard herdivorce spoken of since Janey's first random allusion toit, and had dismissed the tale as unfounded gossip.Theoretically, the idea of divorce was almost asdistasteful to him as to his mother; and he was annoyedthat Mr. Letterblair (no doubt prompted by old CatherineMingott) should be so evidently planning to drawhim into the affair. After all, there were plenty ofMingott men for such jobs, and as yet he was not evena Mingott by marriage.
He waited for the senior partner to continue. Mr.Letterblair unlocked a drawer and drew out a packet."If you will run your eye over these papers--"
Archer frowned. "I beg your pardon, sir; but justbecause of the prospective relationship, I should preferyour consulting Mr. Skipworth or Mr. Redwood."
Mr. Letterblair looked surprised and slightly offended.It was unusual for a junior to reject such an opening.
He bowed. "I respect your scruple, sir; but in thiscase I believe true delicacy requires you to do as I ask.Indeed, the suggestion is not mine but Mrs. MansonMingott's and her son's. I have seen Lovell Mingott;and also Mr. Welland. They all named you."
Archer felt his temper rising. He had been somewhatlanguidly drifting with events for the last fortnight, andletting May's fair looks and radiant nature obliteratethe rather importunate pressure of the Mingott claims.But this behest of old Mrs. Mingott's roused him to asense of what the clan thought they had the right toexact from a prospective son-in-law; and he chafed atthe role.
"Her uncles ought to deal with this," he said.
"They have. The matter has been gone into by thefamily. They are opposed to the Countess's idea; butshe is firm, and insists on a legal opinion."
The young man was silent: he had not opened thepacket in his hand.
"Does she want to marry again?"
"I believe it is suggested; but she denies it."
"Will you oblige me, Mr. Archer, by first lookingthrough these papers? Afterward, when we have talkedthe case over, I will give you my opinion."
Archer withdrew reluctantly with the unwelcomedocuments. Since their last meeting he had half-unconsciouslycollaborated with events in ridding himself of the burdenof Madame Olenska. His hour alone with her bythe firelight had drawn them into a momentary intimacyon which the Duke of St. Austrey's intrusion withMrs. Lemuel Struthers, and the Countess's joyous greetingof them, had rather providentially broken. Twodays later Archer had assisted at the comedy of herreinstatement in the van der Luydens' favour, and hadsaid to himself, with a touch of tartness, that a ladywho knew how to thank all-powerful elderly gentlemento such good purpose for a bunch of flowers did notneed either the private consolations or the publicchampionship of a young man of his small compass. To lookat the matter in this light simplified his own case andsurprisingly furbished up all the dim domestic virtues.He could not picture May Welland, in whateverconceivable emergency, hawking about her private difficultiesand lavishing her confidences on strange men; andshe had never seemed to him finer or fairer than in theweek that followed. He had even yielded to her wishfor a long engagement, since she had found the onedisarming answer to his plea for haste.
"You know, when it comes to the point, your parentshave always let you have your way ever since youwere a little girl," he argued; and she had answered,with her clearest look: "Yes; and that's what makes itso hard to refuse the very last thing they'll ever ask ofme as a little girl."
That was the old New York note; that was the kindof answer he would like always to be sure of his wife'smaking. If one had habitually breathed the New Yorkair there were times when anything less crystalline seemedstifling.
The papers he had retired to read did not tell him muchin fact; but they plunged him into an atmosphere inwhich he choked and spluttered. They consisted mainlyof an exchange of letters between Count Olenski'ssolicitors and a French legal firm to whom the Countesshad applied for the settlement of her financialsituation. There was also a short letter from the Count tohis wife: after reading it, Newland Archer rose, jammedthe papers back into their envelope, and reentered Mr.Letterblair's office.
"Here are the letters, sir. If you wish, I'll seeMadame Olenska," he said in a constrained voice.
"Thank you--thank you, Mr. Archer. Come anddine with me tonight if you're free, and we'll go intothe matter afterward: in case you wish to call on ourclient tomorrow."
Newland Archer walked straight home again thatafternoon. It was a winter evening of transparent clearness,with an innocent young moon above the house-tops; and he wanted to fill his soul's lungs with thepure radiance, and not exchange a word with any onetill he and Mr. Letterblair were closeted together afterdinner. It was impossible to decide otherwise than hehad done: he must see Madame Olenska himself ratherthan let her secrets be bared to other eyes. A greatwave of compassion had swept away his indifferenceand impatience: she stood before him as an exposedand pitiful figure, to be saved at all costs from fartherwounding herself in her mad plunges against fate.
He remembered what she had told him of Mrs.Welland's request to be spared whatever was "unpleasant"in her history, and winced at the thought that it wasperhaps this attitude of mind which kept the New Yorkair so pure. "Are we only Pharisees after all?" hewondered, puzzled by the effort to reconcile his instinctivedisgust at human vileness with his equally instinctivepity for human frailty.
For the first time he perceived how elementary hisown principles had always been. He passed for a youngman who had not been afraid of risks, and he knewthat his secret love-affair with poor silly Mrs. ThorleyRushworth had not been too secret to invest him witha becoming air of adventure. But Mrs. Rushworth was"that kind of woman"; foolish, vain, clandestine bynature, and far more attracted by the secrecy and perilof the affair than by such charms and qualities as hepossessed. When the fact dawned on him it nearlybroke his heart, but now it seemed the redeeming featureof the case. The affair, in short, had been of thekind that most of the young men of his age had beenthrough, and emerged from with calm consciences andan undisturbed belief in the abysmal distinction betweenthe women one loved and respected and thoseone enjoyed--and pitied. In this view they weresedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderlyfemale relatives, who all shared Mrs. Archer's beliefthat when "such things happened" it was undoubtedlyfoolish of the man, but somehow always criminal ofthe woman. All the elderly ladies whom Archer knewregarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarilyunscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-minded man as powerless in her clutches. The onlything to do was to persuade him, as early as possible, tomarry a nice girl, and then trust to her to look after him.
In the complicated old European communities, Archerbegan to guess, love-problems might be less simple andless easily classified. Rich and idle and ornamentalsocieties must produce many more such situations; andthere might even be one in which a woman naturallysensitive and aloof would yet, from the force ofcircumstances, from sheer defencelessness and loneliness, bedrawn into a tie inexcusable by conventional standards.
On reaching home he wrote a line to the CountessOlenska, asking at what hour of the next day she couldreceive him, and despatched it by a messenger-boy,who returned presently with a word to the effect thatshe was going to Skuytercliff the next morning to stayover Sunday with the van der Luydens, but that hewould find her alone that evening after dinner. Thenote was written on a rather untidy half-sheet, withoutdate or address, but her hand was firm and free. Hewas amused at the idea of her week-ending in thestately solitude of Skuytercliff, but immediately afterwardfelt that there, of all places, she would most feelthe chill of minds rigorously averted from the "unpleasant."
He was at Mr. Letterblair's punctually at seven, gladof the pretext for excusing himself soon after dinner.He had formed his own opinion from the papers entrustedto him, and did not especially want to go intothe matter with his senior partner. Mr. Letterblair wasa widower, and they dined alone, copiously and slowly,in a dark shabby room hung with yellowing prints of"The Death of Chatham" and "The Coronation ofNapoleon." On the sideboard, between fluted Sheratonknife-cases, stood a decanter of Haut Brion, and anotherof the old Lanning port (the gift of a client),which the wastrel Tom Lanning had sold off a year ortwo before his mysterious and discreditable death inSan Francisco--an incident less publicly humiliating tothe family than the sale of the cellar.
After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers,then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters,followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and acelery mayonnaise. Mr. Letterblair, who lunched on asandwich and tea, dined deliberately and deeply, andinsisted on his guest's doing the same. Finally, whenthe closing rites had been accomplished, the cloth wasremoved, cigars were lit, and Mr. Letterblair, leaningback in his chair and pushing the port westward, said,spreading his back agreeably to the coal fire behindhim: "The whole family are against a divorce. And Ithink rightly."
Archer instantly felt himself on the other side of theargument. "But why, sir? If there ever was a case--"
"Well--what's the use? SHE'S here--he's there; theAtlantic's between them. She'll never get back a dollarmore of her money than what he's voluntarily returnedto her: their damned heathen marriage settlements takeprecious good care of that. As things go over there,Olenski's acted generously: he might have turned herout without a penny."
The young man knew this and was silent.
"I understand, though," Mr. Letterblair continued,"that she attaches no importance to the money. Therefore,as the family say, why not let well enough alone?"
Archer had gone to the house an hour earlier in fullagreement with Mr. Letterblair's view; but put intowords by this selfish, well-fed and supremely indifferentold man it suddenly became the Pharisaic voice of asociety wholly absorbed in barricading itself against theunpleasant.
"I think that's for her to decide."
"H'm--have you considered the consequences if shedecides for divorce?"
"You mean the threat in her husband's letter? Whatweight would that carry? It's no more than the vaguecharge of an angry blackguard."
"Yes; but it might make some unpleasant talk if hereally defends the suit."
"Unpleasant--!" said Archer explosively.
Mr. Letterblair looked at him from under enquiringeyebrows, and the young man, aware of the uselessnessof trying to explain what was in his mind, bowedacquiescently while his senior continued: "Divorce isalways unpleasant."
"You agree with me?" Mr. Letterblair resumed, aftera waiting silence.
"Naturally," said Archer.
"Well, then, I may count on you; the Mingotts maycount on you; to use your influence against the idea?"
Archer hesitated. "I can't pledge myself till I've seenthe Countess Olenska," he said at length.
"Mr. Archer, I don't understand you. Do you wantto marry into a family with a scandalous divorce-suithanging over it?"
"I don't think that has anything to do with thecase."
Mr. Letterblair put down his glass of port and fixedon his young partner a cautious and apprehensive gaze.
Archer understood that he ran the risk of having hismandate withdrawn, and for some obscure reason hedisliked the prospect. Now that the job had been thruston him he did not propose to relinquish it; and, toguard against the possibility, he saw that he must reassurethe unimaginative old man who was the legalconscience of the Mingotts.
"You may be sure, sir, that I shan't commit myselftill I've reported to you; what I meant was that I'drather not give an opinion till I've heard what MadameOlenska has to say."
Mr. Letterblair nodded approvingly at an excess ofcaution worthy of the best New York tradition, andthe young man, glancing at his watch, pleaded anengagement and took leave.